The first railway in Myanmar was opened in 1877. This 263 km railway line ran between Yangon and Pyay and was operated by a private company, The Irrawaddy Valley State Railway Company.
Yangon to Mandalay
The next train line in Myanmar opened in 1884, running 267 km between Yangon and Tuangoo. Again this railway line was built by another new private company, The Sittang Valley State Railway Company. This line was extended to Mandalay in 1889 forming the back bone of the Myanmar’s railway infrastructure.
Branch Lines to Shwebo, Katha and Myitkyina
Once the line from Yangon to Mandalay had been completed, branch lines started to be constructed connecting Shwebo in 1891, Katha in 1895, and Myitkyina in 1898. These branch lines we initially run by a third private company, The Mu Valley State Railway Company.
Nationalisation of Burma Railways
These three pioneering private companies were short lived, and in 1896 they were nationalised and the track and trains were transferred into the ownership of the state run Burma Railway Company which built more branch lines and finally reaching the sea in 1907.
World War II damaged Myanmar’s Railway Network
This golden age of Myanmar’s railway construction came to an abrupt end in 1942 with the invasion by Japanese military forces. The Japanese removed around 500 km of existing track to build railways lines, most notably from Burma to Thailand, rendering about 70% of the existing railway network unusable.
Post War Reconstruction of Myanmar Railways
The Japanese military had seriously damaged Burma’s infrastructure, and this in turn led to hardship which some believe fuelled the independence movement in Burma, which gained freedom from British rule in 1948. The new Myanmar authorities then set about rebuilding the country’s rail infrastructure and by 1961 the railway network consisted of 3,020 km of track, nearly the same as had been in place before 1942 (3,313 km).
Myanmar’s Railway Building Boom
The next large phase of railway construction came after the installation of a new military government in Myanmar in 1988. Myanmar’s new military rulers were real railway enthusiasts, and increased the length of track from 3,162 km in 1988 to 5,068 km in 2000, and the number of train stations from 487 to over 800. In essence over a 12 year period the Myanmar authorities doubled the size of the country’s railway infrastructure.
What is Next for Myanmar Railways?
Myanmar has a large train network connecting hard to reach areas. Trains are slow but affordable for the general population. To this extent the current railway operation in Myanmar is ‘fit for purpose’. The drivers for modernisation are likely to come from economic development, most notably tourism, as good train connections will open the country up and allow independent travellers to visit the most interesting parts of Myanmar, which are often the most difficult places to reach. The other driver will be the Chinese push to develop the Eastern Corridor of the Pan Asia Railway Network running from Singapore to Kumming in China. Under this scheme being promoted by the Chinese Government, a train line would connect Kumming Train Station to Singapore via Mandalay, Yangon, Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur.